Sex robots are here. Created specifically to allow individuals to simulate erotic and romantic experiences with a seemingly alive and present human being, sex robots will soon force lawmakers to address the rise of digisexuality and the human–robot relationship. The extent to which intimacy between a human and robot can be regulated depends on how we characterize sex with robots—as a masturbatory act, an intimate relationship, or nonconsensual sexual contact—and whether sexual activity with robots makes us see robots as more human or less human. A robot sex panic may be driven primarily by the idea that robots are servile by nature. Critics argue that an inherently nonreciprocal dynamic between humans and robots will translate into exploitative relationships that may fuel abuse of human partners, or that sex robots may further social isolation and retreat from human intimacy. Conversely, sex robots may function as safe—and otherwise unavailable—sexual and emotional outlets for those who may otherwise harm others. They may even train individuals to be more respectful in human relationships. At this point, we do not know how our relationships with robots will inform our relationships with humans, for better or for worse. This Essay explores the consequences of sex robots on society and argues that questions of how sex robots will improve or worsen humans’ treatment of one another is the key to regulation to come. What is clear is that sex robots will require us to grapple with our vulnerabilities in relationships, reconsider fundamental rights, and question what it means to be intimate and to be human.
The full text of this essay may be found by clicking the PDF link to the left.
As artificial intelligence becomes more and more a part of our everyday lives, it will change sex and intimacy in radical ways.
See generally Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (3d ed. 2017) (exploring how technology affects the way humans interact with each other); Love and Sex with Robots (Adrian D. Cheok, Kate Devlin & David Levy eds., 2017) (collecting papers presented at an international conference on love and sex with robots); David Levy, Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships (2007) [hereinafter Levy, Love with Robots] (discussing the potential for humans to fall in love with robots); Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications (John Danaher & Neil McArthur eds., 2017) [hereinafter Danaher & McArthur, Robot Sex Implications] (outlining the logistics and implications of sex with robots); Kate Devlin, Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots (2018) (discussing the development of robotics for personal use in contemporary society).
Many have wondered whether AI-equipped robots will displace sex work and transform sexual relationships in general.
See, e.g., Pew Research Ctr., Digital Life in 2025: AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs 19 (2014), https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2014/08/Future-
of-AI-Robotics-and-Jobs.pdf [https://perma.cc/Y67V-5JM4] (predicting that robotic sex partners will be “commonplace” by 2025 but that they will be the subject of disapproval); Marina Adshade, Sexbot-Induced Social Change: An Economic Perspective, in Danaher & McArthur, Robot Sex Implications, supra note 1, at 289, 292-98 (making four predictions on the effect that sex robots will have on the institution of marriage). Some have forecasted that, in coming decades, we will routinely have intimate relationships with robots and even that human–robot sex will become more common than sex between human beings. 3 See, e.g., Levy, Love with Robots, supra note 1, at 22 (predicting that by 2050 humans will love, befriend, and marry robots); Ian Yeoman & Michelle Mars, Robots, Men and Sex Tourism, 44 Futures 365, 366 (2012) (predicting that robots will displace humans in the sex trade by 2050); Yael Bame, 1 in 4 Men Would Consider Having Sex with a Robot, YouGov (Oct. 2, 2017), https://today.yougov.com/topics/lifestyle/articles-reports/2017/10/02/1-4-men-would-consider-having-sex-robot [https://perma.cc/HHF6-FJ9P]; Hyacinth Mascarenhas, Would You Fall in Love with a Robot? A Quarter of Millennials Say They Would Be Open to Dating One, Int’l Bus. Times (Dec. 14, 2017), https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/would-you-fall-love-robot-quarter-millennials-say-they-would-be-open-dating-robot-1651483 [https://perma.cc/
5LR9-QXGL]; Ian Pearson, The Future of Sex Report: The Rise of Robosexuals, Bondara, (Sept. 2015), http://graphics.bondara.com/Future_sex_report.pdf [https://perma.cc/P5BE-NDYK] (predicting that sex with robots will start overtaking sex with humans by 2050).
The technology industry is creating sex robots with AI, several of which are currently available for sale on the market.
See, e.g., FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), TrueCompanion, http://www.
truecompanion.com/shop/faq [https://perma.cc/59H6-NSBG] [hereinafter TrueCompanion, FAQ] (last visited Aug. 10, 2019); Harmonyx, RealDoll, https://www.realdoll.com/product/
harmony-x/ [https://perma.cc/7T2J-75ZJ] (last visited Aug. 10, 2019). By sex robots, I mean life-size machine entities with human-like appearance, movement, and behavior, designed to interact with people in erotic and romantic ways. 5 See John Danaher, Should We Be Thinking About Robot Sex?, in Danaher & McArthur, Robot Sex Implications, supra note 1, at 3, 4–5 [hereinafter Danaher, Thinking About Robot Sex]. Their features include realistic silicone skin, animatronic heads and faces that move, conversational AI, programmable personalities, and customization options for physical characteristics. 6 See, e.g., Marie-Helen Maras & Lauren R. Shapiro, Child Sex Dolls and Robots: More than Just an Uncanny Valley, J. Internet L., Dec. 2017, at 3, 4. Unlike sex dolls, sex robots are programmed to move and respond to their users, with capabilities ranging from simple verbal responses, to physical movements, to more advanced artificial intelligence. 7 See, e.g., id. at 4–5. Sex robots are also distinct from sex toys, such as vibrators, even ones equipped with some AI, in that robots are meant to enable interactive experiences that simulate being with a live and present human being. 8 See Danaher, Thinking About Robot Sex, supra note 5, at 5. Robots that are currently commercially available are relatively unsophisticated, but rapid advances in the field make it likely they will eventually approach the realistic behavior of the robot characters of Westworld, Humans, and Ex Machina. 9 Ex Machina (Film4 & DNA Films 2015); Humans (Channel 4 & AMC Studios 2015); Westworld (HBO 2016).
We have also seen the emergence of digisexual identity, wherein some people report an exclusive preference for sexual and intimate relationships with robots over humans.
See, e.g., Neil McArthur & Markie L.C. Twist, The Rise of Digisexuality: Therapeutic Challenges and Possibilities, 32 Sexual & Relationship Therapy 334, 334 (2017); Alex Williams, Do You Take This Robot . . . , N.Y. Times (Jan. 19, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/19/style/sex-robots.html [https://perma.cc/F62J-BEJT]; see also Anita Pisch, The Ethics of Human Robots: Sam Jinks Brings an Artist’s Perspective to the Discourse, Conversation (Oct. 29, 2017), https://theconversation.com/the-ethics-of-human-robots-sam-jinks-brings-an-artists-perspective-to-the-discourse-86228 [https://perma.cc/
8Y6W-RRPM] (noting Ian Pearson’s prediction that “by 2025, women will choose robots instead of men, and by 2050, everyone will prefer robots”). Some people have even purported to marry robots and other AI-equipped entities. 11 See, e.g., Kristin Huang, Chinese Engineer ‘Marries’ Robot After Failing to Find a Human Wife, South China Morning Post (Apr. 3, 2017), https://www.scmp.com/news/china/
perma.cc/WN78-VKAH]; Andrea Morabito, ‘Love is Still Love’: Woman Has Hots for Robot in New CNN Series, N.Y. Post (Mar. 8, 2017), https://nypost.com/2017/03/08/woman-has-the-hots-for-robot-love-is-still-love/ [https://perma.cc/3WVS-57F7]; Emiko Jozuka, Beyond Dimensions: The Man Who Married a Hologram, CNN (Dec. 29, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/28/health/rise-of-digisexuals-intl/index.html [https://
perma.cc/E6NA-CTDK]. For a discussion applying family law frameworks to potential marriage and divorce relationships between humans and robots, see Margaret Ryznar, Robot Love, 49 Seton Hall L. Rev. 353, 363-74 (2019).
Distinctive from the use of robots in, say, manufacturing or trucking, the widespread use of sex robots would create concerns that cut across the realms of work and home, the public and the private, the commercial and the personal. Any legal regulation of sex robots will require application of concepts that have been developed to regulate sexual, intimate, domestic, and family matters—areas of law that grapple with experiences and relationships that make us feel most human and most vulnerable.
See Francis X. Shen, Sex Robots Are Here, but Laws Aren’t Keeping Up with the Ethical and Privacy Issues They Raise, Conversation (Feb. 12, 2019), https://theconversation.
com/sex-robots-are-here-but-laws-arent-keeping-up-with-the-ethical-and-privacy-issues-they-raise-109852 [https://perma.cc/77PU-2SQM] (providing an overview of legal and ethical questions raised by sex robots). This challenge will require us to reflect anew on the capacities and rights that the law considers central to humanity and dignity. Will sex robots intensify human pleasures or magnify human horrors of exploitation, abuse, and rape? Will they make us less lonely or more solitary? Will they hold up a mirror to ourselves, our virtues and our faults, or change what we see?